Opinion: Don’t underestimate small town Jewish communities | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Opinion: Don’t underestimate small town Jewish communities

Conventional wisdom says that Jews are best served by living in large cities with large Jewish communities. By that logic, pulpit rabbis have greater opportunities ­– both inside and outside the pulpit – to live a rich Jewish life where we find large Jewish populations. Conventional wisdom is wrong.

Ask those of us in small congregations why we choose this path. We love it. Admittedly, we have challenges: small volunteer pool, financial issues, difficulty getting minyanim. And there’s the challenge of bringing our youth up with Jewish values in areas with not so many Jews. Only, larger synagogues often have the same issues.

The east entrance to Cnesses Israel in Green Bay, Wis., on July 14, 2016.

The east entrance to Cnesses Israel in Green Bay, Wis., on July 14, 2016.

But hear just some of the blessings of being a small congregation rabbi, at least in Green Bay at Cnesses Israel. You get to know everyone. The community operates as an extended family. True, sometimes families squabble. But overall, families operate with love and caring. In Green Bay, this especially manifests when people need a helping hand. For example, someone gets sick, perhaps in the hospital. Within a day or two, your freezer is full. If you need help getting to a doctor, you’ll have more rides offered than you can possibly accept. Even if you’re on vacation and flying out of town, even if you’re taking an early morning flight. Rides will be offered. You don’t have to ask. We’re family.

We’re a Conservative synagogue whose members come from all streams of Judaism. We find common ground – as we should!

Bar/bat mitzvah education is the rabbi’s province. I spend at least a year in one-on-one prep with each student in advance of their bar/bat mitzvah ceremony. It offers additional opportunities to bond with, get to know, both students and parents.

At Cnesses Israel, the Rabbi directs the entire religious school. Frequently, I have my own class. Even then, I always spend time visiting the other classes, answering questions, chatting with parents. I get to know all the students; they all get to know me.

On the other end of the life cycle, I don’t bury strangers. I’ve been in Green Bay for 13 years. At this point, I know our members so well that their deaths do hurt. But nowhere do I feel as helpful and blessed as when I’m helping our loved ones and their families find solace.

At one time, continuing Jewish education was out of reach of both rabbis and laypeople in small towns. You had to travel, which wasn’t always easy. Today, thanks to computers and distance learning, we can participate in a wide variety of educational opportunities. Both teachers and students are an iPad click away.

I enjoy visiting Wisconsin colleagues when I can, but I live a fair distance away. However, that gap is helped by my exceptionally close relations with many in the Christian clergy. And I’ve learned that the Abrahamic religions have more in common than not. My interfaith relationships here are another blessing.

Jews have a long history in Green Bay, starting in the late 18th century with fur trader and businessman Jacob Frank and his nephew, John Lawe. It took another 100 years for a Jewish community to form in the 19th century. Cnesses Israel synagogue has played a central role in the life of the Jewish community and in Green Bay itself.

A Green Bay rabbi cannot ignore the Green Bay Packers and the unique nature that lends our town. We are by far the smallest market in the NFL. And Jewish history here even entwines itself with Packer history. In the early days, Nate Abrams, a Jew and good friend of Curly Lambeau, helped found the team and later kept it from going bankrupt. Our late member, Lou Weinstein, operated the game clock for the NFL. After his death, his son Tom took over those duties. We have members on the Packer board. The former GM, NFL Hall of Famer Ron Wolf, is part of our congregation. And best of all, a lot of our members have those hard to get season tickets. Our gift shop even sells Packer kippot. The Packers definitely lend a fun and exciting aura to Green Bay. Basically, our members are involved in every part of Green Bay life as well as being highly committed to our synagogue.

The best part of our synagogue – and many small congregations – is the strength of Jewish enthusiasm, commitment and pride. And while our youth may leave for larger cities, they carry with them that Green Bay Jewish ethos. Small communities like ours are the hidden but radiant gems in the Jewish world.

Rabbi Shaina Bacharach is the spiritual leader for Congregation Cnesses Israel in Green Bay.